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Every Justice Creates a New Court—A Commentary by Linda Greenhouse ’78 M.S.L.

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on May 27, 2009.

Every Justice Creates a New Court
By Linda Greenhouse ’78 M.S.L.

EVERY time a new justice comes to the Supreme Court, “it’s a different court,” Justice Byron R. White liked to say — and he was in a position to know, having witnessed the arrival of 13 new justices during his own 31-year tenure.

He meant that in a group of nine people bound together by daily ritual and by the need to round up a sufficient number of like-minded colleagues to get anything done, the substitution of one personality for another matters in real life more than it might seem to matter on paper.

It’s an obvious point, but one that is often overlooked in discussions of Supreme Court nominations when, as now, the departing justice’s successor is one who figures to occupy the same side of the ideological divide. President Obama’s nominee to succeed Justice David Souter, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, may not vote much differently from Justice Souter, who established a moderately liberal record during his 19 years on the court.

Even before President Obama made his selection, it was commonly said that this particular nomination would not be a “game changer” on today’s sharply polarized court, where two blocs of four justices seem to spend much of their energy competing for the affections of the one in the middle, Anthony M. Kennedy. (In two 5-to-4 decisions issued on Tuesday, Justice Kennedy voted once with the conservative bloc and once with the more liberal bloc; a third decision was unanimous.)

But even when it seems most static, the Supreme Court is a dynamic institution whose component parts are always, although not always visibly, in motion. John G. Roberts Jr. didn’t figure to be a game-changer either when President George W. Bush nominated him in 2005 to be chief justice. After all, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who had just died, was his former boss and longtime mentor, and no matter how conservative he might prove to be, it was hard to imagine him or anyone else finding much running room to Rehnquist’s right.

And yet there is a different tone now at the court, and not only because Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush’s subsequent nominee, is more conservative than the justice he replaced, Sandra Day O’Connor. John Roberts is a justice in a hurry; he pushes hard, like the young Associate Justice Rehnquist for whom he clerked, and in contrast to Chief Justice Rehnquist, who in his later years was capable of voting in surprising ways — to reaffirm the Miranda decision and reject a constitutional challenge to the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example.

It wasn’t that Chief Justice Rehnquist changed his mind on issues that mattered to him — there is no evidence of that. Rather, he seemed to have developed a sense for when it was best for the court, or perhaps even for the country, not to carry every favored proposition over a cliff to its logical conclusion.

That is a sense that Chief Justice Roberts did not appear to gain during his first years on the court; his 2007 opinion striking down voluntary school integration plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle was so hard-edged that Justice Kennedy refused to sign it, providing a fifth vote for the result but not for the chief justice’s reasoning.

Whether Chief Justice Roberts has developed a Rehnquist-style sense of when to hold back will be evident next month, when the court is expected to decide whether a central provision of the Voting Rights Act, renewed almost unanimously by Congress three years ago, is constitutional. Based on the deep skepticism he expressed when the case was argued last month, the answer is no.

Beyond Sonia Sotomayor’s stirring life story and impressive résumé, what we really want to know is how she will fit into this mix of ideology, personality, principle and politics. Will she make a difference? According to common sense as well as Justice White’s maxim, the answer is “yes, inevitably.” Will it be a difference that is discernible in the outcomes of cases? That may not be clear immediately.

After Justice Thurgood Marshall retired in 1991, Justice O’Connor published a tribute describing him as the embodiment of “moral truth” and recounting the experience of listening to his stories during the decade that they served together, stories that “would, by and by, perhaps change the way I see the world.”

That was a striking statement from a justice who was on the opposite side from Thurgood Marshall in nearly every civil rights case and whose jurisprudence appeared unmarked by his influence. But it turned out to be Justice O’Connor who wrote the majority opinion in 2003 that upheld affirmative action in admission to the University of Michigan Law School. The way she saw the world in the interval had clearly changed, whatever the cause.

Although she is a pioneer in her own way, it takes nothing from Judge Sotomayor to observe that she is not Thurgood Marshall — just as Anthony Kennedy, for that matter, is not Sandra O’Connor.

Indeed, not even the most experienced justice can count on finding an argument that will persuade Justice Kennedy. But there is some evidence that he can be inspired by example and observation. His opinion for the court in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 gay-rights case, clearly rested on his conclusion that gays were entitled to the “dignity,” as he put it, that the court’s earlier ruling on gay rights in Bowers v. Hardwick had withheld. That opinion, among others, indicates Justice Kennedy’s willingness to look through the eyes of those whose experiences are different from his own.

In any event, Judge Sotomayor’s nomination comes at a special moment: the first projection of the remarkable 2008 election onto a Supreme Court that has so often in these last few years appeared headed in the opposite direction from the country. Whether her arrival proves to change the way the incumbent justices see the world, it will, at the least, change the way the world sees the Supreme Court.

Linda Greenhouse, a former Supreme Court correspondent for The Times, is the author of “Becoming Justice Blackmun.”